Envisioning the Status of Women in 2020

by Dr Krishna Ahoojapatel, President 2005 – 2008, June 2008

Note: This paper was presented in June 2008. Although most of it is still valid, it should be updated with the latest development regarding the Status of Women, most notably the creation of UN Women.

In 1946, when the Commission on the Status of Women was established in the UN, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (Palais de Chaillot, Paris, 1948) had not yet been adopted. Article One of the Declaration reads, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The amendment to Article One of the Declaration immediately became a matter of political controversy as far as its terminology was concerned.

The word human has been interpreted in most national laws to include both men and women (although the word women contains men). For a long time until the women’s movements became vital, this term was accepted and acknowledged by official policies and legislation. At the Palais Conference when the Declaration was debated, the question arose whether human beings in Article One include women. The leader of the Indian delegation, a famous trade union leader, Madame Hansa Mehta, who had been working closely with Eleanor Roosevelt in the process of drafting the Declaration, proposed an amendment to change the word human to men and women.

At the time the status of women as a concept was defined by the UN commission to include legal, economic, political, and social conditions of women and their relationship to society. It would take another sixty years to transform the original terminology and arrive at a new concept called women’s human rights. The original meaning of the status of women has undergone an historical evolution to include special and specific rights of women within the framework of human rights and international law. The articles incorporated in the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) signed in 1979 and ratified by 179 countries in 2005 has redefined women’s rights. It was in 1993 at the Human Rights Conference in Vienna that the new terminology women’s human rights was introduced by women’s movements in its Recommendations and Plan of Action.

In order to distill lessons from the past and best practices on which we can base our future activities, this report is analyzing the achievements and challenges of the NGO CSW since 2000. What are the lessons that international women movements have learned from their past actions to continue advocacy at the national level? The answer is certainly not unilinear and will depend on the continent, region, country or community. What is clear is that the global condition of women, their subjugation and the intensity of violence against them, are issues which are no longer invisible and hidden under the carpet. Instead, these have become subjects of great concern to large elite groups of the urban populations of the world: particularly those who have had the privilege of being educated in formal institutions and are linked to the international institutions. The level of global awareness is uneven and it is not yet possible to scientifically measure its scope. However, even the most conservative elements of any society have become politically sensitive to the causes and consequences of abusive treatment of women and their sexuality. No social group, ethnic, religious, or racial, can afford to ignore the ongoing discrimination of women in their daily lives.

Impact on economic and social practices (1950s-1990s)

The significant political, economic and social change which has transformed women’s lives has occurred only recently in the last decade of the twentieth century. At the end of the 1980s, the public policies began to change toward the treatment of women by eliminating discrimination in social attitudes and traditions through legislation. It was in the decade of 1990s that the UN Conferences on women, children, habitat, social summits and influenced the shift of the development paradigm to include women in other economic sectors the workforce, processes of decision making, and hierarchies in official bureaucracies.

The translation of women’s protests originating in international women’s movements from policy toward legislation was a long and slow period of struggle by NGOs and women’s organizations in different countries and cultures. In the early 1990s, the global review on women in the world economy reflected a fundamental change in its structure and institutions.

Working women began to be represented in all economic sectors including trade unions, corporations, and government institutions. Most importantly, their bargaining position in the economy gave them the opportunity and access to political power and women began to be nominated to national assembly seats and parliaments. In some countries the political parties have completely ignored the economic power of women and that is the reason why globally women represent only 18% of the national parliamentary seats.

In 2000, when the UN adopted the millennium development goals (MDGs), one could discern a fundamental change in the terminology and meaning of the original concept the status of women. The contemporary UN vocabulary had decisively shifted toward gender mainstreaming and become a legitimate international issue among UN agencies and organizations. This new concept began to appear on the global agenda departing from the earlier meaning of the status of women.

Main Achievements of the Committee on the Status of Women;
Gender equality in institution building

The percentage of women in leadership positions has not evolved sufficiently since 1995 and ultra -conservative groups too often put improvements into question. The performance of the Parliaments in Norway, Rwanda and the Welsh Assembly with 50% women representatives are still an exception to the rule. Much effort is still needed to reach equality in decision-making where it really matters: in the economy and finance, in politics, in strategizing for the earth’s future, and the well-being of humankind. The current number of women heads of state (Presidents and Prime ministers) has risen to 35 since the first breakthrough in Sri Lanka in 1962. New institutions within or outside the United Nations in the future will determine the role of women in achieving equality at all levels. But equality will remains only a mathematical equation and is not inclusive of social equity for women that still remains a distant dream.

A real partnership between the two genders (as they are called) in power and decision-making will not become a reality without a complete attitudinal change – in men and women alike – to break the glass ceiling which keeps able women from reaching their full potential (women need to make millions of holes in the glass ceiling globally). We must learn to think laterally instead of reproducing patterns of power put in place by men who do not necessarily want to share power and care for social needs. We must break the glass walls, external as well as internal, in which we are still imprisoned!

The main objective of the NGOs and women’s organizations under Conference of NGOs in Geneva (CONGO) including the Committee on the Status of Women (CSW) was to hold and, if feasible, improve the time-budget allotted to the NGOs. In order to continue the struggle for advocacy by maximum time allocation under the rules of procedure signified continued solidarity with different organizations to make oral or written statements. The results of this concerted effort was that during the period of transition from Human Rights Commission to the Human Rights Council, the largest number of delegates spoke in favor of the improvement of the status of women adding different national dimensions (not necessarily on gender mainstreaming, gender equality or under the official title integration of women). More and more civil society organizations focused on gender/women’s issues and a large number of parallel events and panels were promoted during the seven sessions of the Human Rights Council. Since 2000, the subjects dealt with by the Council, which might be considered ground-breaking, and which have made long strides toward the advancement of women’s human rights are: violence against women, rape as a weapon of war, right to vote, marital law on rape, inheritance and succession, right to nationality, gender budgets, sex ratio.

It is not easy to summarize the main achievements of the NGO CSW as they go hand in hand with the achievements of women’s movements in the world. The presence of NGO CSW Committee’s (New York, Geneva, Vienna) in the UN system with its continual role of advocacy to enhance the status of women is itself a major achievement. The fact that some of its members anywhere and everywhere in the world continue to lobby, participate, and advocate the advancement of the role of women in society shows that struggle is not over and the journey continues to be long. At the same time, it should be noted, remembered, and celebrated that many achievements of the last two generations have transformed the nature of social justice and accorded a higher place to women and will probably help change the nature of power in the next generation. It is clear that there is no going back on these achievements. What is important is that the next generation of women and men continue to be trained regarding ‘her’ story and not his-story of eliminating discrimination against women at different levels of society and the economy.

Learning from the past in order to improve the future is important! None of the achievements on the status of women at the legal, economic or political level can be taken for granted, as there are small pockets of resistance at the international level – sometimes called the backlash. There is no backlash in women’s progress, but there are conservative forces that will keep women under control in the household and immobile in the community to exclude them from political participation. The basic catalyst of achievements at all levels was women’s ability to network with any and every group and use their kitchen tables for networking and administrative arrangements. This global networking began at a time when information technology was not as advanced. The rapid pace of information technology and using more sophisticated methods simplified the task of networking across the globe. Networking is an art at which women in this Committee particularly excel and sometimes do not realize they have instruments of power in their hands. In the non-technical language of non-research, networking is both visible and invisible. Its remarkable achievement and significance became clear in the presence of 50,000 women from 187 countries at the Beijing conference in 1995.

Vision 2020s: changing views on the status of women

The establishment of the UN Commission on the Status of Women was a global landmark on the institution building for the advancement of women. Subsequent developments on the condition of women in different continents, regions, countries and communities have transformed the landscape of social attitudes and legal changes. Since the Declaration of the International Women’s Year and the UN Decade for Women (1976-1985), the four major UN conferences on women (Mexico 1975, Copenhagen 1980, Nairobi 1985, Beijing 1995) and the proliferation of international women’s movements, women’s issues and gender equality has become a legitimate item on the international agenda. Of the 193 government members of the UN today, few government representatives will be recognized in international fora if they make official statements on the traditional approaches or status quo of women in society. How rapidly women’s status moved from the private sphere to the public space and how the economic contribution of women began to be measured at the official level and how women began to move toward decision making levels is an amazing story of current history. What follows is a summary of the outline of this revolution in ideas.

CEDAW: challenges at the international level

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) marked the United Nations first major effort to prescribe a comprehensive international legal standard for gender equality. The Preamble of the Convention and its thirty articles provide a guideline for evaluating laws, policies, or practices which continue to be discriminatory against women as well as outlining a program to remove all such forms of discrimination in such areas as politics, education, health and employment. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1979, the Convention was signed by 64 States during the special ceremony at the Copenhagen Conference on 17 July 1980. The Convention became effective beginning 3 September 1981. As of 2 November 2006, the Convention has been ratified by 185 countries (over 90 percent of UN members). Throughout its history, the Convention has served as a reference point for women’s movements and for those seeking gender equality in laws, policies, and budget allocations.

CEDAW continues to remain the basic source of international law to fundamentally alter the status of women at the national and community levels. Despite mechanisms of reporting on the changing status of women in country reports every two years, the main problems of enforcement and implementation continues to mar the progress of women. The big gap between theory and practice continues to enlarge the chasm between de jure and de facto making it difficult for women to demand and exercise their human rights. What is remarkable is that women even in some of the remote areas of the world, which are geographically isolated, have heard of their human rights and are willing to struggle and fight for them.

CEDAW: changes at the national level

During the last five decades, demonstrations and protests by non-governmental organizations and women’s organizations against their governments have become a common feature in several countries. The battle lines and struggle at the household level have resulted in conflict and confrontation challenging the national laws and putting pressure on government authorities to change public policies to eliminate discrimination against women.

International Women’s Movement

The number of organizations, social groups, and women’s associations has continued to increase at the national level, which is translated into the higher level of international NGOs linked to local levels in many countries. The significant feature of this development is that women have learned to organize their protests, are part of legal and informal groups, and have learned an important lesson that it is not individual action but collective effort that will bring about major social and economic change. Out of this development, a new social phenomenon has emerged that relates to the continual discussion, debate, consultation, participation and interaction of women on their problems and conditions of life in society. This realistic informal education in everyday life has given women an edge over men who did not go through this process institutionally or emotionally. This has widened the gap between men and women in attempting to understand the economic and social realities with which women are struggling and wherein lies the discrimination. The demand by women for their human rights and the resistance to accept them by political authorities, religious hierarchies, and their immediate family members creates a high degree of tension and often results in violence. There is, therefore a direct and indirect correlation between the exercise by women of their human rights and different forms of violence against them. This reality should not prevent us from analyzing different forms of discrimination based on race, political belief, and sexual orientation that also are practiced regularly against men. The differential seems to be that the discrimination against women based on their biology is an additional and predominant factor.

Conclusions: how the world is changing, changing terminology

Looking at the UN surveys and documents of the period from 1960s-1990s, it is interesting to note that the terminology on women’s issues changed radically with the concepts on development and the four UN conferences on women. In the 60s the terminology referred to women’s questions, but after UN conferences on women there was a rapid change from women’s issues to gender equality followed by gender mainstreaming. How women’s issues became gender issues is not only a question of terminology or the influence of economic and social disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and development economics, but also the resistance to politically considering women’s issues in their own right. Behind the scenes at the national level the guidelines and checklists of the UN DP began to be questioned and some countries introduced the gender dimension as a social construct to include the relationship between men and women to society. Now that gender has entered the terminology in the status of women, some of the earlier social and economic issues affecting women have become a little blurred and placed on the backburner. On the other hand, it has helped to bring men and boys in front of analysis to understand the conflicts at the political and domestic level.

Another institutional building process is also taking place in the core UN structure dealing with gender/women’s issues in New York. The title of this process, gender architecture, has been added to the huge vocabulary in the UN on women and gender issues. There are four main UN institutions that deal with the follow-up of UN Women’s Conferences, organization of relevant meetings and coordinate a large number of programs and projects in different UN organizations and agencies; these are: Division of Advancement of Women, New York; Commission on the Status of Women, Geneva; UN Voluntary Fund for Women (UNIFEM), New York; and UN International Institute for Research and Training for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), Santo Domingo. It has been decided at the highest level that the first three UN entities will be under one administration and management and a newly appointed Deputy Secretary-General directly reporting to the UN Secretary-General. INSTRAW, being technically a separate UN Agency, will continue to function as a research and training centre in Santo Domingo.

The parallel events held by the NGO CSW during the seven sessions of the Human rights Council covered a large number of issues emerging from the themes of the discussions s and debates which focused on gender equality, While more and more governments are taking the floor on women‘s issues, there is less and less implementation of international Conventions and enforcement of national laws. The themes that were repeatedly addressed in the interactive sessions were mostly connected to violence against women and the following:

•- Rape as a weapon of war

•- Marital law on rape

•- Inheritance and succession

•- Right to nationality

•- Sex ratios

•- Gender budgets